Asparagus isn’t magic

A friend of mine just for­ward­ed me an e-mail that makes all sorts of amaz­ing claims about aspara­gus. It starts out with this heart-warm­ing tale:

My Mom had been tak­ing the full-stalk canned style aspara­gus that she pureed and she took 4 table­spoons in the morn­ing and 4 table­spoons lat­er in the day. She did this for over a month. She is on chemo pills for Stage 3 lung can­cer in the pleur­al area and her can­cer count went from 386 down to 125 as of this past week. Her oncol­o­gist said that she does not need to see him for 3 months.

In oth­er words, they want me to believe that sim­ply adding a few table­spoon­fuls of pureed, canned aspara­gus would pro­vide mirac­u­lous ben­e­fits for a hor­ri­ble, lethal ill­ness. I’m not buy­ing it. First, what’s a “can­cer count” for lung can­cer? White blood cell counts are impor­tant in can­cers that involve over­pro­duc­tion of white blood cells, but I don’t know of any “can­cer count” for lung can­cer.

Sec­ond, what that e-mail is describ­ing is a drug effect, not the effect of a rad­i­cal change to a healthy diet. We know that aspara­gus can make your urine stink, but if it had the kind of pow­er described in that e-mail, it would also have sub­stan­tial side effects. A lot of peo­ple like the idea of “nat­ur­al” and “herbal” drugs because they have the mis­tak­en idea that such prod­ucts can have ben­e­fits with­out side effects. How­ev­er, the rea­son why so many “nat­ur­al” and “herbal” prod­ucts have so few side effects is that they don’t have much of a ben­e­fi­cial effect either. It’s almost a law of nature. Any sub­stance that has the pow­er to exert an effect on the body will pro­duce a mix­ture of effects: some wel­come, oth­ers unwel­come. The idea that a few table­spoon­fuls of pureed aspara­gus could have such a pow­er­ful effect on the body with­out caus­ing more prob­lems than stinky urine is sim­ply hard to believe.

Third, the e-mail went on to bab­ble about the “his­tones” in aspara­gus, claim­ing that they have the abil­i­ty to “nor­mal­ize” cell growth. His­tones are a pro­tein that is found in all of the chro­mo­somes of every­thing that keeps its chro­mo­somes in a nucle­us. That includes all green plants, from the sim­plest algae to the giant red­wood, as well as all ani­mals and fun­gi. Fur­ther­more, the his­tones them­selves have changed aston­ish­ing­ly lit­tle over the course of evo­lu­tion. That’s usu­al­ly a clue that they do some­thing vital, but it also means that there’s noth­ing mag­i­cal about aspara­gus. The fact that his­tones are a pro­tein is anoth­er impor­tant clue that this e-mail is non­sense. If you take a pro­tein by mouth, your diges­tive sys­tem nor­mal­ly breaks it back down into indi­vid­ual amino acids. Some big­ger bits of pro­tein might occa­sion­al­ly make it through to your blood­stream if there’s some­thing wrong with the lin­ing of your intes­tine, which is why eat­ing ani­mal pro­teins can pro­voke autoim­mune dis­or­ders. How­ev­er, the effi­cien­cy of human diges­tion means that you nor­mal­ly don’t get any ben­e­fit from pro­tein drugs if you take them by mouth. That’s why insulin has to be inject­ed.

A switch from the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet to a low-fat, plant-based diet that strong­ly empha­sizes fruits and veg­eta­bles can pro­vide health ben­e­fits that might seem mag­i­cal to the aver­age Amer­i­can. How­ev­er, it achieves these ben­e­fits part­ly by remov­ing the cause of most of our major caus­es of death and dis­abil­i­ty: the over­load of fat and ani­mal pro­teins. You can’t get the same effects by adding an herbal sup­ple­ment or a few table­spoon­fuls of pureed, canned veg­etable to a crap­py diet.

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